Do as many Melburnians cycle to work as Americans?

Cycling's share of commutes: graphic by Kory Northrop, University of Oregon

This remarkable map, via Nancy Folbre, shows cycling has a non-trivial share of commuting in at least ten cities in the automobile-centric USA. In Portland OR, 6% of workers commute by bicycle and in Minneapolis 4%. Cycling’s mode share is 3% in Oakland, San Francisco and Seattle, and 2% in Boston, Philadelphia, Washington DC, New Orleans and Honolulu.

How does Melbourne compare with US cities? These ten cities are central counties so there’s no point in comparing them with the entire Melbourne metropolitan area (where bicycle’s share of commutes is 1%). In order to arrive at a fair basis for comparison, it’s necessary to look at bicycle’s share of commutes in Melbourne’s inner city and inner suburbs.

So I’ve summed the Statistical Subdivisions of Inner Melbourne, Moreland, Northern Middle Melbourne and Boroondara. They give me a combined area – which I’ll call central Melbourne – of 313 km2 and a total population of 804,112. That’s a little smaller geographically than Portland, which occupies 376 km2, but it’s a much larger population than Portland’s 566,143.

Cycling’s share of commutes in central Melbourne is 2.81%, which seems pretty good compared to most US cities. However given it’s substantially higher population density, it’s surprising that central Melbourne falls well short of Portland, where 5.81% of commutes are by bicycle. Some allowance has to be made for different methodologies – for example, the Portland figures are 2009 and the Melbourne figures are from the 2006 Census – but that’s not enough to explain a gap this size.

My family and I spent a week in Portland in 2009 and I don’t recall any obvious physical differences that favour cycling relative to Melbourne. In fact at first glance Portland doesn’t look especially promising for bicycles. It’s hillier than central Melbourne, it’s colder and it’s lower density. I doubt that Portland is better endowed than central Melbourne with commuter-friendly cycling infrastructure either.

In some ways Portland actually belies its status as the darling of new urbanism. It’s spaghettied with freeways and in many places doesn’t have footpaths. Even with the new light rail system, public transport has a substantially lower share of travel than in Melbourne.

I think a better explanation for cycling’s high commute share is the special demography of Portland. Aaron Renn puts it this way:

People move to New York City to test their mettle in America’s ultimate arena. They move to Silicon Valley to strike it rich in high tech. But they move to Portland for values and lifestyle; for personal more than professional reasons; to consume as much as produce. People move to Portland to move to Portland.

He cites Joel Kotkin, who reckons “Portland is to today’s generation what San Francisco was to mine: a hip, not too expensive place for young slackers to go”. I like the way the comedy TV show Portlandia put it, describing Portland as the place “where young people go to retire”.

In other words Portland has a population who’re more likely to cycle than even the relatively young residents of central Melbourne. Portland is unique – even compared to what Renn calls faster-growing “talent hubs” for young people like Raleigh and Austin.

So I think central Melbourne stacks up well against US cities, including Portland. We don’t however do very well against certain European cities – where cycling mode shares north of 50% are known – but then our history has more in common with north America.

There’s still no getting away from the fact that bicycle’s share of commutes in US cities and in Melbourne is small. Even so, it’s very likely growing. Moreover, the 6% share in Portland is on a par with public transport’s share of all trips in Adelaide, Canberra and, until the recent completion of new lines, Perth – this isn’t comparing apples with apples, but the key point is these cities take public transport seriously notwithstanding its small share.

One possibility I can’t exclude in the comparison of Melbourne against Portland is the effect of weather at the time the data was collected. The Australian Census is undertaken in winter (this year it will be 9 August), when cycling is least attractive. The American Community Survey used in the US collects data on a rolling year-round program so it’s possible – even likely – the mode use data for Portland was undertaken in more clement weather. If so, I expect Melbourne would look quite good compared to Portland. If not, well, Portland’s winters are diabolical compared to ours.

7 Comments on “Do as many Melburnians cycle to work as Americans?”

  1. Nathan Alexander says:

    I expect the cycling stats for Minneapolis at least are from the warmer times of the year. When I was there for a year in 1982-83 you could count the total number of cyclists in winter on two hands.

    • Oz says:

      Are you sure the preoccupation with JTW trips is the correct focus when observing travel patterns? In some of the Carlton street system cycle trips tip ten percent.

      • Alan Davies says:

        A lot of the focus on the JTW is because reliable data is only available by purpose for work journeys e.g. the Census question on where and how commuters travel to work. Partly it’s also because bicycles used for the JTW are being used instead of some other mode (usually public transport in my view), whereas many other trips are discretionary – a trip for coffee in Lygon Street (say) might be made by bicycle or else not at all.

        Great care is also needed in drawing general conclusions from what happens in a very small geographical area.

  2. Michael says:

    I wouldn’t be surprised if cycling in Melbourne plateaus. There isn’t really any substantial infrastructure planned and in the time I have been cycling there has been new infrastructure but on balance no improvement in cycling conditions. In fact what little cycling infrastructure there is leading into the city is probably at saturation point already when the weather is good.

  3. Nik Dow says:

    I think we have missed the major point here.

    Portland has an extensive network of bicycle routes which have been built over the last 20 years, which exceeds that of any similar sized US City and which is credited by Portland peole with encouraging their uptake of cycling. Failing to compare the built infrastructure of the two cities makes the other comparisons worthless.

    Quite recently, for example, the (Australian) Cycle Promotion Fund published this:

    “A national survey conducted by the Cycling Promotion Fund (CPF) and the National Heart Foundation of Australia has found more than 62% of Australians want to be able to ride a bike for transport, but road safety fears are keeping bikes in the shed and off the road.

    The data released today at the Australian Bicycling Achievement Awards in Canberra found that while more than 60% of Australians have access to a bike, almost 70% were not considering cycling for transport in the near future, even though more than half of those would like to.

    According to Stephen Hodge spokesperson for the CPF, the main reasons why people were not riding bikes were unsafe road conditions (46%); speed/ volume of traffic (42%); don’t feel safe riding (41%) and a lack of bicycle lanes/ trails (35%).”

    I also take offence at cyclists being equated with lazy dropouts as an explanation. Could it be that people go to live in Portland because of the people-centred environment created in part by the bicycle friendly roads?

    • Alan Davies says:

      Nik, I’d say Joel Kotkin used the term “slackers” affectionately. I don’t think you need to take offence on behalf of Portlanders, they delight in labelling themselves ‘weird’. Have a look at the link I gave to Portlandia.

      I’d say no one compares Melbourne and Portland’s relative provision of cycling infrastructure because no one’s assembled the data to enable a reasonable comparison. Even so, I for one agree wholeheartedly with the view that fear of traffic is the key deterrent to cycling in Australian (and doubtless American) cities.

  4. Michael says:

    I think one of the main problems with riding in Melbourne is that the cycling infrastructure that is available has been created piecemeal and ad hoc. There is often no cycling friendly connections between parts of it and no effective planning to create a network. I haven’t cycled in any other cities but maybe that might be a factor. It’s hard to imagine it being worse than Melbourne.

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